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Riverwalk History

During the second half of the 20th century Milwaukee turned its back on a valuable economic resource, the three rivers that run through the heart of the City. Once the center of commerce and recreation, the Milwaukee River had become one of the City's most neglected amenities.

In 1982 the city was under a Federal court mandated order to eliminate overflows and improve seweage treatment, a project that became known as the Water Pollution Abatement Project (WPAP). It was an enormously complex infrastructure project that took more than a decade and cost billions to complete and was the beginning of the Milwaukee River cleanup effort. The cornerstone of the project was the construction of a 17-mile, 34 foot diameter deep tunnel intended to hold sewerage during storm events and prevent it from overflowing into the rivers and Lake Michigan. 

The engineer in charge at CH2MHill, the lead engineering firm working on the deep tunnel, had a downtown office which overlooked the Milwaukee River. The neglect of this valuable resource was so glaring that he convinced his firm to contribute $150,000 to engage a nationally-noted design firm to produce a series of draws for a river improvement project, of which a riverwalk would be the primary component. 

The Greater Milwaukee Committee, along with Mayor Maier were shown the finished set of drawings. The GMC agreed to sponsor the riverwalk as its primary focus that year and Mayor Maier adopted the riverwalk concept as part of the City's Master Plan. 

The Department of City Development was tasked with promoting the idea of riverwalks to the greater public. They developed a marketing plan called "Riverlink" that envisioned riverwalks, public programming to animate downtown spaces, riverfront developments including housing, entertainment & dining venues and river taxis for transportation. There were many hurdles to acceptance, but enough small successes led to slow and steady progress.

The project needed a leader who could bring the various private and public players to the table, it needed a funding mechanism as it was clear the private sector could not do this on their own and it needed legislated zoning.

In March of 1988, former Mayor John Norquist committed to change the way Milwaukee viewed its waterways.  The City announced the Riverwalk Initiative with the intent to use the river as a means to connect downtown development with business and leisure activities. It became a partnership between the City and the private property owners along the river and downtown (later forming the Milwaukee Riverwalk District) and together they believed the project would have a far-reaching impact, improving public access to the river and increasing property values.  The primary goal was to put a renewed focus on the river as a destination for residents, employees, and visitors alike. A funding mechanism was established through the creative thinking of the City's Comptroller, agreements were signed and the first riverwalks were designed in the early 90's. Downtown riverwalk construction, concentrated in an 8-block area, was mostly complete by 1997, transforming the Milwaukee River.

Legal Basis of the Initiative

Wisconsin's Public Trust Doctrine places all lakes and streams in trust for the benefit of all citizens to use for commercial, navigation, pleasure boating, sailing, fishing, swimming, skating, rowing, walking and the enjoyment of scenic beauty.  To ensure compliance with the Public Trust Doctrine, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) requested the City prepare a Master Plan to include the established guidelines for construction and use of riverwalks, as well as the location of proposed Riverwalk segments for future construction.  The City worked in cooperation with the DNR to create a Riverfront Comprehensive Plan that would comply with the State Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine.

Once this Master Plan was written and formally approved by the DNR and the City of Milwaukee, the process of issuing permits for the construction of the Riverwalk was greatly simplified.  DNR permits for Riverwalk construction are now issued for developments consistent with the adopted Master Plan.

In 1993, the Riverwalk Initiative was formally expanded to reinforce the city's commitment for the design and construction of the Riverwalk.  Consisting of 22 proposed segments, the end goal was a Riverwalk System that would unify downtown attractions and become, over time, a significant attraction in itself.  A resolution creating the Riverwalk Site Plan Review Overlay (SPROD), followed by the creation of a Riverwalk Development Fund was adopted in the fall of 1993.

The purpose of the SPROD is to provide an opportunity to create new Riverwalk projects which are compatible with their neighbors while encouraging creativity, variety and excellence in design and layout.  The design specifications associated with the SPROD apply to, but are not limited, to landscaping, lighting, accessibility, adjacent building facades and the ability to connect to future Riverwalk segments.  The overlay district applies to the lower and middle portions of the Milwaukee River, extending 3.1 miles, along both sides of the river, from the Harbor northward to the site of the former North Avenue Dam.

Water Cleanup Efforts

In 1985 the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) restored the pumping station at the Lakefront and began to flush the Milwaukee River with clean lake water throughout the summer, greatly improving water quality.

In 1994, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staff led a technical advisory group consisting of the City of Milwaukee, Milwaukee County, Village of Shorewood, Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District.  The team studied alternatives for river revitalization and recommended the partial removal of the North Avenue Dam (originally built in 1891) to lower and narrow the river flow back to natural conditions.

Upon partial removal, the river resumed a more natural course and ater quality quickly began to improve.  By the end of 1994, the first downtown riverwalk segment, completed in accordance with the formally adopted Riverwalk Initiative, was constructed.  Enthusiasm for further river revitalization ensued.

With renewed interest in the Milwaukee River, additional studies were conducted with regards to improving this valuable resource.  Study findings suggested the North Avenue Dam be removed completely to enhance revitalization efforts.  City officials agreed, permits were secured and in 1997 the remainder of the dam was removed.  A pedestrian bridge now spans the length of the River at that location and serves to connect the Brady Street neighborhood to the Beerline "B" neighborhood.

Riverwalk Development: Segment by Segment

Open to the public
24 hours a day, 365 days a year
Free of charge



Contact Alyssa Remington
Phone 414-286-5802
Email [email protected]

Downtown Information


Regulation & Funding Policy

Beerline RiverWalk

Downtown RiverWalk

Third Ward RiverWalk

The Milwaukee River is
on the USATODAY list
of 10 great places to
stream through cities 





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